The campaign itself will stand long in the memory as a celebration of democracy. I make no secret of my own personal disappointment at the result, but to have some 85% of the electorate turn out and vote, in the context of recent British political campaigns, is something to be celebrated. For those involved, it was stressful, exhausting, exciting and utterly unforgettable. While the campaign of course centred on Scotland, for Wales, the potential consequences are equally profound, and serious questions must now be addressed regarding the future of the constitutional arrangement for Wales.
Fighting for Scotland in Wales – but how aware were we?
From a personal experience, much of the campaign was a real thrill. Going down to Cardiff Bay as part of the ‘Go for it Scotland’ rally, provided one of those rare opportunities to meet up with politically active individuals, and politically engaged minds. Such occasions are all too infrequent in Wales these days. Cheering along with Leanne Wood, singing classic protest songs, and mingling and conversing with people who shared a vision for the future of Wales, really raised the spirits. Too often do we approach elections in Wales, regardless of political affiliation, with a tiresome apathy and excuse laden avoidance to engage with the political process.
While there were moments during the campaign in Cardiff where it felt like there was some sense of hope for the political awareness of the country, I made the mistake of trying to engage locals in Caerleon with discussion about the referendum. One of the most robust responses that I received, was from a lady commenting ‘oh, you’re following that Scottish thing then are you?’
For all the joy that I have taken from meeting with politically awake individuals, and watching social media explode in a frenzy of debate, in the streets and towns of Wales, a very different picture was evident. We are still politically disconnected here, and I am not sure how, when a referendum which could change the entire fabric of the island fails to engage electorate attention, we will ever succeed in reconnecting with the disengaged majority.
A Vote for, what was it again?
One of the other things that have really troubled me during the closing stages of this referendum is the rash conclusions that have been drawn from voting patterns. There seems now to be a popular consensus that the people of Scotland have voted for change. Now, while I don’t entirely disagree with that notion, I am troubled by the fact that the leading parties in Westminster and Holyrood have taken up a mantel of constitutional reform, on the back of a vote which just, pretty convincingly, rejected constitutional reform. A rejection of Scottish independence is not a vote for whatever constitutional mixed salad might get thrown up by Westminster over the next few months – it troubles me to think how readily this notion has been accepted based on so little. The very same should be said of England. We hear now, on the premise that several Conservative MPs are personally unhappy with the proposed Scottish arrangements, that there is a sudden groundswell of support for devolution, in one form or another, for England. Again, a Scottish No vote cannot speak on behalf of the voters of England on their constitutional future – the notion is bonkers. More to the point, in 2004, when the north east was given the chance to vote on devolution, they rejected the proposals by almost 80%. When and where did the vast swing among English voters for devolution take place exactly? Is there any evidence to back this up? Or, more worryingly, is this simply a case of opportunistic politicians in England making a name for themselves?
The UK media has been quick, and right to celebrate the success of the democratic process in Scotland. Yet for a collective move to try and sledgehammer through new devolution settlements across the country, including in England, without public consultation or further referendums, would utterly undermine the progress made by the democratic movement in the British Isles over the last few days. Once more, let me be clear on my person reflections. I would, if I could, have voted for Scottish independence, or DevoMax if that was the only thing on the table, and English devolution. I would be somewhat concerned however, if I woke up one morning to find the constitution had been changed overnight, without anybody even asking me.
What of Wales?
Depending on whom you ask, Wales was going to be left isolated and compromised by either a Yes or a No vote. I argued that a No vote would be more dangerous for Wales, given the various commitments made by the leading parties in Westminster, and how we might well be forgotten or sidelined in a desperate attempt by London authorities to make good on their words to Scotland. I retain those concerns. While Wales has had to go through the mill repeatedly to make any progress with its devolution agenda, it appears that Alex Salmond, either through design or disarray, has made Westminster blink. The parties in London who had seemed so reticent to give anything to Scotland, including levying a series of potent and obvious threats at Scotland should they have voted Yes, are now lining up to confetti Scotland with devolution reforms. For Labour, a commitment by Miliband to lock Barnett in place, seemingly forever, is another bone of contention for a Wales. As everyone is sick of hearing by now, Barnett consistently undercuts Wales in terms of financial support - this commitment from Miliband seems to enshrine that situation. So where will Wales fit into all these discussions to be had in the coming weeks?
While David Cameron has insisted that Wales must be an equal player in discussions, it is difficult to accept that such comments truly reflect the will of the Westminster leaders. After all, many slips of the tongue in the campaign have highlighted that this was, and has always been about Scotland leaving England/Westminster, rather than the UK. Making Wales a focus in these discussions will be a real challenge, and the only way the country stands a chance, is if the leadership of the four represented parties in the Senedd find a way to unite and present a shared voice. Yet, given Welsh Labour’s insistence on ploughing a field alone, it is difficult to see this being achieved, however essential it is to success.
A thought on the youth of Scotland, and across the UK.
While there are a lot of things to be concerned about regarding the implications of a No vote for Scotland, one thing that can certainly be celebrated is the high turnout of the first time youth voters. On social media, it was hard to avoid celebratory teenagers of both sides of the debate, proclaiming their joy at having exercised their democratic right to vote. Overall turnout figures alone give a good indication that the majority of teenagers enfranchised in the Scottish vote, must have participated. This awakening of the youth demographic has been long overdue and the success of the programme of enfranchising voters must surely now be extended across the island to all votes and elections. If we are truly celebrating the democratic process displayed in Scotland, we must look to take the best from it – youth engagement seems critical to ensuring the relevance of politics in the UK.
I do though worry about how the No vote will impact on many of those teens who did vote. The expectations of younger voters needs to be carefully managed, because the crushing blow that this defeat will have had on many who engaged in the political process for the first time ever, may well be enough to ensure they never return. While I am unhappy with the overall result, a real tragedy would be if the result ultimately serves to discourage participation, than encourage it.
There is probably a lot more that could and needs to be said on the process, but, having registered about two hours sleep, and functioned on single malt whisky as the only form of liquid for the last eighteen hours, that’s probably enough for now. Suffice to say, even though I, once more, disagree with the result of the vote, this has been one of the most thrilling and engaging periods of political engagement that I can ever remember. It has been a privilege to witness and take part in it, and I sincerely hope that this does indeed prove to be the start of real political reform for the country and that the opportunity to make this a better country does present itself. As Leanne Wood asked in the final week of the campaign, if we are better together, why are things not better now? The challenge is indeed to make things better, to secure a devolution settlement within the Union for Wales and Scotland, and the English regions, that is better, because if it is not, calls to leave the Union once more will not be far behind.